Today is the 62nd year anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the greatest battle in the history of naval warfare. It occurred in the Philippines in the closing months of the Pacific War in a desperate effort by the Japanese Imperial Forces to draw the US Navy’s Seventh and Third Fleets into one final engagement hoping to annihilate them in the process that will result in the isolation of the Allied Invasion Force in Leyte from its lifeline and prolong the war and the survival of Imperial Japan with the knowledge that once the Philippines is lost, the war is over.
I am a self- confessed history buff and ever since I was a young boy I was always fascinated by the men in uniform and their exploits--
--Blame it on the proliferation of war movies at that time. I can say that I watched a lot of war flicks ( “Tora! Tora! Tora!” “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Longest Day”, “Force 10 from Navarone,” etc.) with my Mom and Dad in the movie houses of Tabaco (Jojo Cinema) in Albay Province as well as Lola Theater in Legaspi City.
The epic “Midway” is one of my earlier favorites where incidentally if memory serves me right was the first movie shown in the only air- conditioned theater in Albay during that time in the late Seventies which is the La Trinidad Theater. I remembered my playmates and I had a grand time picking up the hundreds or so movie leaflets that were dropped by a single- engine- propeller -driven airplane one afternoon in Tiwi, Albay to herald its opening.
--Blame it also on the toy guns and soldiers that I got as gifts while growing up back when the world is way, way different in its outlook with regards to these kinds of toys. I spent countless hours playing with them in the backyard of our house plotting the offensive and counter- offensive in the see- saw battle between the Allied Forces against the German Afrika Korps while pretending to be a hotshot General ala Monty or the Desert Fox in the Battle of El Alamein. I carried the notion of becoming a military man into my early teens that I even entertained the dream of taking the entrance examination into the Philippine Military Academy and become an officer in the elite Philippine Army Scout Rangers albeit it did not push through for so many reasons and thus it remained just that, a pipe dream.
--Blame it on the books that I have read while rummaging into the dusty book shelves of my Grandfather in the house. Books like the Erich Maria Remarque’s classic "All Quiet on the Western Front," the Leatherneck’s "Guadalcanal Diary", a Priest’s daring exploits in Mindanao in "Guerilla Padre," Churchill’s "History of the Second World War," William Shirer’s "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," Capt. Rikihei Inoguchi’ and Commander Tadashi Nakajima’s "The Divine Wind" wherein both officers served in the Philippines under Admiral Ohnishi, the originator of the “Kamikaze” concept and countless William Hoyt’s Books about the subject as well as a cover-less book on legendary Col. Wendell Fertig’s war adventures in Mindanao whose title now escapes me.
During the course of my journey I have encountered men and women from the Greatest Generations who are now in the twilight of their lives; people who once in their lives have “talked the talk and walked the walk.”
I am very fortunate that they shared their stories with me. I have a lot of unfinished manuscripts and recordings that someday when I have the time and money as well as the courage---I will write a book about them and their stories.
I remember Mang Berting, an indigent patient in Antipolo during our Medical Mission in the 1990’s who shared with me his story about the Liberation of the more than 3,000 American Prisoners- of- War interred at the University of Santo Tomas as a member of the Philippine Scouts that was attached to the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division under the command of Col. Haskett Connor that led me back to writing after years of self- imposed hiatus.
Unfortunately, I was not able to get the full name of Mang Berting for a daughter of one of the POW and a Nurse that was held there contacted me after the said article was published in Mandirigma (an on-line web site that features the exploits and stories of Filipino men in uniform -- http://pinoysoldierstories.tripod.com) in 2001 for she is in the process of writing a book about her parents' wartime experiences and needed some eyewitness accounts on the matter. It was also her who informed me two years later that Col. Connor passed away quietly.
I met a lot of War Veterans, both men and women, during the course of my work in the hospital here in Michigan that in one way or another has some “Philippine Connections” where they have told me about their beautiful experiences in the Philippines and its people.
I met Mr. Daniel Pedro, a USAFFE enlisted man barely out of his teens in War Two and a 50 year- veteran with the Michigan State Police who was so nice and his eyes immediately lit up when I told him I am from the Philippines and he immediately told me stories during his time there that were both sad and hilarious as only he can dish out in his loud and uncensored fashion with special mention of our native “Balut.”
Then there was Mr. Julius, a veteran of the Battle of Leyte Gulf and a survivor of the escort carrier USS Gambier Bay, the only carrier lost in World War II to the guns of the Japanese Imperial Navy when Destroyers and Cruisers of Vice- Admiral Kurita’s Center Force slipped through the US Navy's defenses undetected through the San Bernardo Strait under a shroud of mist just off Samar and attacked them. He and the other survivors were at sea for more than 24 hours until they were rescued by friendly forces ending their ordeal, burned skin and all.
Mr. Zandro, an Italian- American who was a “replacement” soldier of the US Army’s 81st Infantry Division a.k.a. the Wildcats Division in Leyte, told me about the mopping-up operations they did in May 1945 against the remnants of the Japanese Imperial Army as well as the warm welcome they got from the Filipinos in the islands.
Mr. J. Hovokar, a member of the 5th Marine Division who participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima and survived its volcanic sands and horror; a veteran of one of the fiercest combats in the annals of the US Marine Corp and WWII. He told me that he was once interviewed during one of the Iwo Jima Veteran's reunion by the author James Bradley regarding his experiences during his research of the book “Flags of Our Fathers.”
How can I forget Ms. Prudence Burns Burrell, the 80 -something bubbly African- American who was once an Army Nurse with the rank of 1st Lieutenant and was stationed in the Philippines in World War II. She and her fiancé eventually got married there wherein her wedding dress was fashioned out of parachute materials. She gave me the book, "Hathaway", her autobiography that in some chapters detailed her wonderful time in the “Philippines Island. “
And Mr. Michaels, who was a young Ensign in Leyte when his aircraft carrier the USS Intrepid saw action in that decisive naval battle and who took his precious time and served as my tour guide and walked me through the USS Intrepid (now a Sea, Air and Space Museum) in New York City last year during the 60th anniversary celebration of Victory in Japan Day (VJ-Day) that was held on the flight deck of the said aircraft carrier that was aired in the History Channel.
Yes, I was in the Big Apple in August 2005 where I was able to witness in the process the re-enactment of the famous “Kiss in Times Square” between an unknown Sailor and a Nurse at that time. 60 years later the names and faces of the personalities involved are now known to us except that they are older and grayer but that will be reserved for another story.
These are just some of the members of the Greatest Generations whom I am privileged and honored to have met, talked to and shared stories with. May their stories never be forgotten.
Today is a day of paying homage to all the brave fighting men of both sides who perished in battle fighting for a cause that they believed in and also to those who survived and were scarred for life so that their sacrifices will never be forgotten and a prayer that we will never see another global war in our lifetime again.